Evangelical Protestants may be too polite for their own good—or for the good of the United States. According to University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, American evangelicals are blessed by (and suffer from) an “ethic of civility.” Hunter, whose recent study of evangelical college and seminary students is being published this month (Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, Univ. of Chicago Press), explains that conservative Protestants have developed a cultural coping mechanism in order to survive in modern society—a commitment both to tolerating others and to being tolerable to others.
In our desire to engage modern culture rather than retreat from it, we have developed an uneasy willingness to cooperate with colleagues of distinctly different stripes—mainline Protestants, Jews, and those “secular humanists” with whom we need to live and work. This ethos of toleration is certainly laudable, even essential. Yet not all the results have been positive. On two fronts, evangelical courtesy has seriously watered down its witness.
First, Hunter reports that among the coming generation of evangelical leaders the ethic of civility has enfeebled the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone. His survey contains the percentages to prove his point, but still more disturbing is the anecdotal evidence: seminarians saying they would never talk to a non-Christian about the dangers of hellfire, because such a witness could alienate the potential convert.
Second, evangelical niceness has meant evangelical ineffectiveness on the political front. While there is not the absolute cohesion on political issues among conservative Protestants that the Religious Right has claimed in the ...1
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